Frank and Eric Vernon — The Bar-B-Q Shop
As I'm interviewing Frank and Eric Vernon, the father-and-son team behind the Bar-B-Q Shop, Eric suddenly jumps up to greet a man coming in the door. It's James Alexander, the legendary bass player of the Bar-Kays.
"He's been coming here since it was Brady and Lil's," Eric says.
Frank Vernon says he started as a backyard pitmaster. At the time, the Vernons had their own small restaurant, called Frank's. But Brady and Lil's was a family favorite.
"When I didn't cook, I would go by there and get my ribs, barbecue, and barbecue spaghetti," Frank recalls. "It was a favorite of Willie Mitchell. All the Stax people used to go there because it was just down the road."
Mr. Brady and Frank became close friends. When it came time to retire, he asked the Vernons if they would take over the restaurant.
"The sauce came from Mr. Brady," Frank says. "At one time, he didn't want to give it to us. He wanted to make it for us, which was a bad idea. We told him we wanted to think about it."
Brady called them over to his house later. "He said, I'm just going to give you the sauce when you buy the business," Frank said. He then signed a Bible and presented it to the Vernons, sealing the deal.
Frank tweaked the sauce recipe over the years to make it cling tighter to the ribs. Now, Eric makes more than 40 gallons per week from scratch at the Madison restaurant, and the bottled version is sold in more than 140 Kroger stores from the Missouri bootheel to the Delta. But the Shop first gained notoriety for barbecue spaghetti.
"That spaghetti has been around over 50 years," Frank says. "It's something unique. Everybody's got a barbecue spaghetti now, but they don't have the one that we have."
The shop's Texas Toast barbecue sandwich was Frank's invention. He says the entire meal is carefully balanced.
"That Texas Toast and the slaw and the meat, they all complement themselves and enhance themselves," Frank says. "I don't care if [another restaurant] goes and uses the Texas Toast. They ain't gonna get the same flavor."
Frank developed a glaze for barbecue chicken and then became curious how it would taste on pork ribs. In 2015, the glazed ribs were named Best Barbecue Plate in America by the Food Network.
The Shop's proximity to Ardent Studios has made it a favorite of musicians, from Mavis Staples to Bobby "Blue" Bland to ZZ Top's Billy Gibson, who has a favorite table.
"DJ Paul and them would pull up in a Range Rover and order ribs with the dry seasoning, back in the day when they were recording down the street," says Eric. "We fed Justin Timberlake's crew when they did a concert here."
Frank recalls when "We used to close at 2 o'clock on Monday. One Monday, at about five minutes to 2, Luther Vandross' bus drove up. They came in here and got every rib we had in the house."
The Vernons are consummate restaurant professionals, and it's the loyalty of their customers that keeps them going. "The great thing about this business is when you walk out of the kitchen and see customers that you've been knowing for years," Frank says. "Or you go up to a table that has never been here before, and they say, 'This is great! Keep doing what you're doing!' And then you see them again." — Chris McCoy